The Environmenstrual Diaries
Everything you need to know about WEN’s historical and ongoing fight for safe and environmentally-friendly sanitary products
Part 1: Introduction
Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) has been around since 1989, and for all glorious 26 years of feminist environmentalist campaigning, it has been engaged in a bloody war against the sanitary protection industry. I’ve been blessed with the job of digging through WEN’s archives and compiling a history of the organisation, and in the process have uncovered a lot of the (genuinely fascinating) pre-internet paper trail from this decades-long battle.
WEN has had some awesome achievements, and if you menstruate, they almost certainly will have impacted you without you ever realising. But we still have a long way to go in the fight for menstrual products that are both safe to use and environmentally-friendly.
Apart from helping me learn more trivia about sanitary protection legislation than I ever thought I would (which I can’t stop boring my friends with now!), this research has made me well-placed to put together a guide with everything you need to know about the vampire’s teabag, and all of the environmental and political issues surrounding it.
Back to 1989: what was sanitary protection like when WEN began?
Our very first inaugural campaign was on Sanitary Protection (sanpro) back in 1989, when WEN staff Bernadette Vallely, Alison Costello and Josa Young launched a book called The Sanitary Protection Scandal. It slammed the sanpro and disposable nappy industries for unsafe, unsustainable and irresponsible manufacturing procedures.
The time was ripe for this book; in the eighties, ultra-absorbant Rely tampons were introduced to the market in the US, and women were dying. Tests made the link between tampon use and Toxic Shock Syndrome*, sending tampon users into a panic and creating a media storm. In response to the scandal, this particular tampon was pulled from the shelves, and as the tests had pointed to high-absorbancy tampons as the likely culprits, stricter regulation was enforced in the US and elsewhere that required manufacturers to steer away from them.
But this didn’t fully solve the problem of TSS for a number of reasons. Worryingly, we’re still not 100% sure what it is about tampons that leads to TSS, and many have argued that other factors are equally dangerous if not more so than absorbancy, such as oxygen content, materials and the friction of tampons being inserted or taken out**. On top of this, it was pretty much business-as-usual for the sanpro industry in the UK after the TSS scare. Many British women continued to use tampons, with environmentally friendly alternatives like menstrual cups being extremely hard to come by at the time (the flagship UK brand Mooncup only hit shelves 15 years later in 2002). Sanpro companies were still under no legal requirement to write anything on their products about the risks of tampons, leading WEN to take a stand against this culture of secrecy and dishonesty surrounding what consumers put inside their bodies.
The aim of The Sanitary Protection Scandal was to inform women about how these products were really made and what they contained in them. Following on from their pioneering initiative, we’d like to do a similar thing here on our Environmenstrual blog. In our next section, we’ll be breaking down the health risks still associated with sanpro today, and comparing them with the dangers sanpro posed when WEN first began.
In the remainder of our series we will also be raising some of the environmental issues of non-biodegradable sanpro waste, much of which, when flushed instead of thrown away, ends up strewn across the British coastline, wreaking havoc with marine ecosystems. Consideration of the sheer amount of sanitary products each individual uses in their lifetime poses the important question of are there more environmentally sustainable alternatives that we should be using? Find out more in our third instalment…
*Toxic Shock Syndrome: a rare but serious infection that involves fever, shock and possible organ failure. It’s caused by the release of poisonous substances from an overgrowth of bacteria called ‘Staphylococcus aureus’, or just ‘staph’, which is found in many women’s bodies. Staph is normally – and harmlessly – present in the vagina. In order for staph to multiply to dangerous levels, two conditions are necessary; first, the bacteria needs an environment where it can grow rapidly and release poisons (such as a tampon saturated with blood), then the poisons must get into the bloodstream.
** Oxygen content has been more strongly associated with risk of toxic shock syndrome than either absorbency or chemical composition (Lanes and Rothman, 1990; Ross and Onderdonk, 2000); polyester foam and carboxymethylcellulose have been identified as materials that provide a better environment for the growth of staph bacteria than either cotton or rayon fibres (Parsonnet, 1996); and a tampon sliding in or out can make microscopic tears in the walls of the vagina, rupturing tiny blood vessels, which makes it easier for staph poison to get into the bloodstream.